In 1951, Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was bursting onto the international art scene. Two years earlier, the Philadelphia native constructed his largest mobile, “International Mobile,” for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Third International Exhibition of Sculpture. His works were featured in the best galleries and a retrospective was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shows in Paris followed.
But before he began focusing on large-scale commissioned works — such as “.125” at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and “El Sol Rojo” in Mexico City — Calder met Stanley Marcus (1905-2002). At the time, Marcus had just assumed the CEO post at Neiman Marcus, the department store founded by his father and aunt.
Impressed with the artist’s work, Marcus purchased a Calder mobile in 1951. “Today, it’s the most prized piece in the Neiman Marcus Collection,” says Julie Kronick, corporate art curator at the Dallas-based luxury retailer. “We like to say that’s when the collection officially started.”
“Stanley Marcus had impeccable taste,” adds Greg Rohan, president of Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, “and that extended to his art collection.”
The Neiman Marcus Collection today includes more than 2,500 pieces spanning all mediums, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, mobiles and even ancient artifacts and textiles from across the world. Works range from Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) to French artist and sculptor Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985). Unlike most corporate collections, pieces from the Neiman Marcus Collection are spread across the country, displayed at the company’s 41 full-line Neiman Marcus stores. “Most of the pieces are not housed in a warehouse or in the executive offices,” Kronick says. “The majority of the work is in our stores, on view for customers and associates to enjoy.”
Q: You first came to Neiman Marcus as a private consultant in 1990, correct?
A: I was initially hired on contract to work for four months. I had worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and then at one of Leo Castelli’s galleries. I came to Neiman’s as a consultant to work on new store openings. Mr. Marcus had already left the company by then.
Q: How has the acquisitions process changed since Stanley Marcus left?
A: There are two big changes. First, while Mr. Marcus was at the helm, he made most of the decisions regarding art acquisitions. Mr. Marcus had an appreciation for all types of fine art, from textiles to sculptures to mixed media. He was at liberty to buy what moved him, and he made some significant purchases. I could never acquire a Jean Dubuffet today or an Alexander Calder. When I first came to Neiman’s, I thought it would be more wise to acquire three to four important pieces a year and really highlight them within the company and for our customers. But I soon recognized that we have so many spaces and so many stores that it’s better to buy more work and cover more ground. The second big change is that Mr. Marcus bought art without particular spaces in mind. That is why I found a lot of artwork housed in a warehouse, awaiting the appropriate space to be installed. On the other hand, I buy art for site-specific locations.
Q: What is your annual acquisitions budget?
A: I am not at liberty to tell you. The budget does vary, and when we open a new store, the art budget generally is based on the square footage of the store.
Q: What is the most you’ve spent on one piece of art?
A: It would probably be an outdoor piece, something that is much larger in scale. We do not always have the space to accommodate these monumental pieces, but when we do, they make quite a statement.
Q: How many pieces do you acquire each year?
A: It depends if we are opening a new store or working on a major remodel. An average per store is approximately 100 to 150 works. We may acquire several pieces by the same artist, so we may have 25 to 30 artists represented in a given store.
Q: So explain how you go about looking for pieces to fill a particular store.
A: Generally, about a year before a store opens, I begin the process of networking in a particular region. I sometimes start with the gallery guide for a given city and call on galleries from those listings. I also approach art dealers who live in various parts of the country. The ones who I work with understand our parameters, as far as taste level, style and price point. Sometimes I contact the curator at a local museum and inquire about some of the younger local artists who are doing exciting work. In addition to the above sources, I visit artist and gallery Web sites. All of this legwork is done before I make my first trip to the area.
Q: So when do the artists start fitting into your store layout?
A: When I have artists in mind, I look at the scope of their work. I take that information and work hours upon hours on my floor plans, looking at wall elevations and different options. It is similar to fitting puzzle pieces together. Adjacencies are extremely important. For example, if the presence of designer shops create several walls which are seen in the same view, it is crucial that the art pieces are complimentary. The works of art in any given store need to flow. Once I’m comfortable with the fit, I then approach the artist and commission him or her to produce a piece of a specific size. Approximately 85 percent of all the artwork purchased is commissioned.
Q: Most artists must be happy to work with you to achieve your goals.
A: They are usually quite pleased. Neiman Marcus is honored to have their work included in the collection and they, likewise, feel fortunate to have their work featured.
Q: What about artists who don’t want to cooperate?
A: There have been times, yes. Several artists have declined, most likely, because they would rather have their work purchased by a museum or private collector rather than a retailer. We respect their wishes and move onward. There are so many artists doing interesting, sophisticated work in abstraction who are pleased to be a part of who we are and what we do. As for the others, if it’s not a right fit, it would not be a successful project.
Q: You must receive unsolicited portfolios from artists all the time.
A: I get hundreds of portfolios. If an artist sends a package or directs us to his or her Web site and it is not what we are interested in, they are at least owed a response. I typically explain that we work with regional artists, local to where we are opening a new store. We also focus primarily on non-representational work. If someone insists on presenting images of their Western art pieces or traditional botanicals, we politely reply that the work is not in our scope or focus.
Q: So you must get lots of artwork featuring pricey bags and shoes?
A: Occasionally we do. Generally, we don’t mix fashion with art. The more recent acquisitions certainly reflect my taste. If someone else came on board as curator, his or her stamp would be left on this collection, too. But I am not interested in fashion as the subject matter for the art. It is important that the works in our collection stand on their own integrity. They should have the same strong presence and validity, whether they are installed in a retail environment or any other environment.
Q: Are any other themes off limits when you look for art?
A: We focus on abstract, non-representational work. If someone brought you into our Hawaii store, and then 15 minutes later blindfolded you and took you to our San Antonio store, you would see a consistency. Nothing is cookie-cutter in our stores, especially the art. The high level of taste and sophistication are the consistent factors. While we want the work to be interesting and thought-provoking, we believe it can be beautiful and entertaining as well.
Q: But that doesn’t mean you don’t push artists. There have been times you’ve asked artists to do things they don’t normally do, right?
A: I think we sometimes stretch an artist in a way that he or she may not have been stretched before. About eight years ago we asked artist Richard Beckman to create a large sculpture for one of our focal spaces. He had never worked in this large scale before. After some hesitancy, he took on the task, conquering several engineering challenges. The finished piece is dynamic and quite breathtaking. Sometimes, as in this case, we believe that if we can stretch an artist and open them up to something they haven’t considered, the end result can be an exciting step into another phase of their work. If we can encourage an artist to reach beyond his or her potential, it’s a win-win.
Q: Who are some of the artists you’ve acquired whose pieces have now skyrocketed in value?
A: Of course the most noticed price escalations are seen with our larger sculptures, such as our Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Alexander Liberman and Harry Bertoia sculptures. Some of our limited edition prints have also increased in value over the years. A lot of our artists have certainly received national and international attention.
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by Hector Cantu